Hope and the Science and Society Challenge

By Elf Eldridge 20/08/2013

Is anyone else slightly concerned about the absence of commentary on the Science and Society National Science Challenge?

For those who either missed it (or forgot about it in the intervening months since its announcement at the end of April this year) the “Science and Society” challenge was touted as a leadership challenge for the government to:

“…take take a lead in improving the science capacities and the public’s understanding of science…” – quote from here

The peak panel recommended several (non-exclusive) areas that needed targeting:

  • Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education in primary and secondary schools
  • Public understanding of science, technology assessment and risk forecasting
  • Early discussion amongst society on new technologies to develop the social licence and agree boundaries.

I must admit as a panel member this was by far the most exciting challenge. In my last blog is even went so far as to say:

“So I guess now it’s up to scientists to ensure that NZ lives up to this challenge, and it will be our fault if “Science in Society” ends up becoming just political hot air.”

Well, as some more astute readers have noticed – it is now August; and to the best of my knowledge approximately NOTHING has happened on this challenge since May.* In that time, the other challenges have all held several meetings and workshops  with leaders from their respective fields. Some even appear to be making progress**!  I could hypothesis why this is the case until I’m blue in the face but there are some glaring reasons why scientists might have more pressing concerns than this, as a physics researcher pointed out to me on twitter last week.


It could simply be that this challenge requires dialogue with a huge number of diverse groups – the image above attempts to name and connect the organisations involved in public science outreach across New Zealand (kindly provided to me by MBIE). I’ll freely admit that this is a complex and often high-opinionated landscape – but it’s also one that’s united by a common cause. Surely expecting a simple statement of intent or movement over almost 4 months isn’t too much to ask? Not when individuals are willing to volunteer their time to make this move forward? Which is – in part why I’ve been feeling so uncharacteristically pessimistic about the future of science in New Zealand recently.

JPEG image

But once again – it’s New Zealand fantastic teachers, scientists and students that have bought me out of my gloom. Firstly a massive congratulations to the New Zealand team in the international young physicists tournament who were awarded a silver medal for their 6th placing in the 2013 held in Taipei. If you need confidence in New Zealand’s ability to produce top quality scientists and engineer you need look no further than this team – and of course the support they received from their teachers, a certain blogger, and scientists at Callaghan Innovation even whilst in the midst of an pretty extensive restructure.


Then there are the phenomenal candidates who participated in this year’s Eureka! Sir Paul Callaghan science symposium. The eventual winner – Evan Brenton-Rule spoke about managing New Zealand’s invasive species – but all the participants are well worth watching. On there’s the fact that currently there’s a space telescope mounted in a freakin’ PLANE operating out of Christchurch. And the NZ skeptics conference and Carter Observatory get to host astronomer and podcaster Pamela Gay at their 2013 conference on September 6th-8th in Wellington.

With all this going on (and of course much MUCH more) – it difficult to stay pessimistic about the relationship between science and society in New Zealand. Of course we can do much better – and we should certainly strive to – but perhaps a simple way for us to start is to acknowledge the science culture we have bubbling out of the woodwork already across Aotearoa?


* Yes there’s a large element of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’ in this post since even I haven’t posted about it since May! And part of the blame sites squarely with myself for letting this lapse.

** Apologies for being bland and non-specific here. I can’t comment further on this until an official announcement is made. Rest assured I will as soon as one IS made.

0 Responses to “Hope and the Science and Society Challenge”

  • I don’t think the problem for the lack of movement on ‘science & society’ challenge lies at the scientists feet. The workshops/sandboxes/whatever they were calling them were all organised by MBIE by invitation*. I’ve not heard anything about whether the ‘science & society’ challenge is even going ahead and its not listed on the MBIE website. For those interested info from the workshops is available here: http://bit.ly/19FYyKT

    *As an aside, Sir Peter Gluckman said that early career researchers would be involved in these but this is what it says on MBIE’s website about who they invited to the workshops:

    “MBIE wrote to all major research organisations that had links to research associated with a Challenge, inviting them to nominate people to attend the workshops. We recommended that attendees should be active science leaders who are experts in a field relevant to the Challenge, and be leaders of research groups of sufficient size or importance to the topic.”

    Doesn’t sound like the definition of early career researchers to me.

  • Well said, Elf; to me this Challenge is perhaps the most important of all, so it would be good to see it begin to gain some traction.